Sundance 2018: The Tale, by David Bax
One of the main uses we’ve found for the art of cinema is to tell stories. In many, broad ways, Jennifer Fox’s The Tale is just another of these. In other ways, though, it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before. It’s a memoir or maybe a personal essay, an autobiographical tale of self-rediscovery by a woman in her 40s, ignited by a different, earlier account of the same events written by the same woman 35 years earlier. It would be tempting for the viewer to interpret the earlier version as delusion or obfuscation–it certainly took a lot of lying to ignore and cover up the sexual abuse of a thirteen year old girl–and this new version as the clarification. But Fox’s brave and rattling film is not interested in any such clean separations. It’s a Ship of Theseus-style look at self-identity and memory, as well as a literally awesome testament to the power and longevity of a story.
Laura Dern plays Fox, a documentarian and professor getting ready to marry her fiancé (Common) when her mother (Ellen Burstyn) calls her one day, distraught at having found a story Fox wrote as a teenager that details disturbing and traumatic events involving two adults in her life, her running coach (Jason Ritter in flashback and the late John Heard in the present) and her horse riding coach (Elizabeth Debicki/Frances Conroy). At first insisting on the version written down by her teenage self (Isabelle Nélisse), Fox quickly becomes consumed with reexamining her own past and and possibly finding a way to come to terms with it.
The Tale mostly unfolds in a familiar pattern of two stories, flashback and present day, being told on parallel tracks. But there is some structural audacity at work here too. Interspersed throughout are scenes that can only be described as Fox literally questioning her own memories. Addressing the camera, the early versions of characters, including the young Fox, attempt to answer questions posed by the voice of the adult Fox.
These scenes mimic the documentary style in which Fox (the character) is clearly comfortable. But they are also admissions by Fox (the director) that documenting the present and remembering the past are two very different pursuits that result in two very different versions of a story. The truth is a three dimensional object. The way it looks depends on where you stand.
The Tale is not perfect. Common never seems able to get a handle on a character who is defined mostly by his having nothing to do with the story being told. And the music by Ariel Marx has a bland, made-for-TV instructiveness to it. But all of that is plowed over by Fox’s often uncomfortably straightforward, confrontational mode of filmmaking. There’s no pretense or metaphor here. Fox is directly taking on the nasty, complex long term effects of abuse, insisting that, in our #MeToo moment, we resist the easy route of seeing victims where there are people.